They say that dog is a man’s best friend, which could not be more accurate for veterans. Dogs provide the sense of responsibility and companionship that comes with pet ownership, but they can also act as a source of support both therapeutically and physically. If you’re a veteran looking for a service dog to aid you in your day-to-day life, here’s what you need to know:
What Are the Benefits of Service Dogs?
There are approximately 500,000 service dogs on duty in the United States, with 19 percent explicitly trained to help owners with PTSD. Service dogs can be trained to perform numerous activities that are helpful to your specific needs, whether it be to provide mobility assistance, interrupt harmful behaviors, calm panic attacks, retrieve medication and more. Service dogs have also been proven to help veterans recognize and cope with their symptoms, gain sleep, reduce anxiety, strengthen relationships, balance emotions and assist in healthy transitions.
Does the VA Provide Service Dogs?
Until recently, the Department of Veterans Affairs did not provide service dogs. However, in August of 2021, a new piece of legislation known as the Puppies Assisting Wounded Servicemembers (PAWS) for Veterans Therapy Act authorized the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to create a pilot program on dog training therapy based on the promising “train the trainer model.” The program will provide dog-training skills and service dogs to veterans with mental illnesses, regardless of whether or not they have mobility issues.
However, regardless of how you receive your service dog, you will need to apply for VA Veterinary Health Benefits to get approved for ownership.
How Can a Veteran Apply for VA Veterinary Health Benefits?
- Hearing, Guide, Mobility: The veteran should meet with their VA clinical care provider to begin the application process for this benefit. The specialist will complete an evaluation and make a clinical determination on the need for assistive devices, including a service dog. Once the assessment is completed and a service dog is determined to be the optimal tool for the veteran’s rehabilitation and treatment plan, the provider will work with the veteran to obtain the necessary information and documents to request the benefit. This includes coordination with the local VA Medical Center Prosthetic and Sensory Aids Service.
- Mental Health Mobility: The veteran should meet with a VA mental health provider to begin the application process for this benefit. The mental health provider and care team will evaluate and determine whether the mental health condition is the primary cause of the veteran’s substantial mobility limitations. The team will also assess whether a mobility service dog would be the veteran’s optimal intervention or treatment approach. If the team considers a service dog to be the optimal intervention, they will request the benefit on behalf of the veteran through coordination with the local VA Medical Center Prosthetic and Sensory Aids Service.
Each veteran’s case is reviewed and evaluated by a prescribing clinician for the following:
- Ability and means, including family or caregiver, to care for the dog currently and in the future
- Goals that are to be accomplished through the use of the dog
- Goals that are to be achieved through other assistive technology or therapy
The veteran will be informed of an approval or disapproval of their service dog request by the VA Prosthetics and Sensory Aid Service. Veterans approved for service dogs are referred to Assistance Dogs International, or International Guide Dog Federation accredited agencies.
Where Can I Find My Service Dog?
For more information on where to find a service dog and connect with a community of other veterans with their own service dogs, the VA will usually coordinate with an organization such as the International Guide Dog Federation or Assistance Dogs International.
To access more information on the service dog process, please visit the International Guide Dog Federation at igdf.org.uk and Assistance Dogs International at assistancedogsinternational.org.
Source: Department of Veterans Affairs, Purina, tillis.senate.gov